Rebel Regent?

UNLV alum Sam Lieberman wants to fix the state’s ailing higher ed system

Photo By Jon Estrada

Photo By Jon Estrada

Sam Lieberman spent many years as a UNLV student, taking too many classes until Esther Langston of the social work department showed him how he finally could graduate with a degree, and he did. “No one else had done that for me,” he says. “Now I want to give something back. I’ve been able to do a lot of things in the political and nonprofit sector, but I’ve been able to do all of that because of the framework I got from going to UNLV.”

So, Lieberman—a former Nevada State Democratic Party chairman—announced he’s running for regent next year. He wants students to have the support they need to get where they want to go. The 52-year-old already has a long history of giving back to his alma mater, serving on the alumni association board, UNLV College of Liberal Arts advisory board and the UNLV Foundation Annual Giving Council. But it’s the new goals he wants to talk about now: “to sustain and enhance higher education for students, faculty, staff and alumni alike; to bring students to campuses earlier in their lifetime; and to build community through higher education, which means educating Nevada residents to stay in Nevada and give back to the higher education system.”

As party chair and in the nonprofit world—he’s a government-affairs specialist with Easter Seals and has served on the board for HELP of Southern Nevada for 25 years—Lieberman has plenty of experience balancing contending forces. That’s good training for a regent in the troubled Nevada System of Higher Education. Part of the problem is state support, or the lack of it, for universities and colleges. So make no mistake: It’s an advantage to know how the gears of state politics work.

Fortunately, Lieberman has lived in Nevada since 1980, and he knows where the land mines are, political and otherwise. “I’ve had to work in a nonpartisan fashion in the nonprofit sector, and I’ll be able to do that on the board,” he said, as his list of well over 100 endorsements from Republicans and Democrats alike attest. Thus, he supports a medical school for Southern Nevada, but adds, diplomatically, “The question is what is the most appropriate method of funding it.”

Another part of the problem is the NSHE itself, which has sent out several recent signs of dysfunction:

• At a regents meeting, one member asked about accountability and transparency, but the question went unanswered.

• Word trickled out about high maintenance costs, and the fact that CSN had to take out a $10 million loan to pay for them.

• The Desert Research Institute reported difficulties in recruiting top-flight employees because of underfunded K-12 schools and poor health benefits.

• The president of Truckee Meadows Community College said she avoided classroom cuts by slicing administrative costs; NSHE leaders had advised against the approach.

• Regents went along with plans to urge students to take 15 credits per semester to speed graduation rates. Nobody seemed willing to address how this would be possible without restoring the student-services counselors and advisers cut during the past six years. Two regents suggested this new policy might not be a good idea and questioned the $50,000 allocated to market it. One asked for data from another school with a similar program, but an NSHE administrator replied that there wasn’t any. Then the program was approved anyway.

Meanwhile, UNLV collects food so underpaid staff can eat, but all 13 regents received new iPads.

In other words, Lieberman has his work cut out for him. But—disclosure alert—I have known him since we were undergraduates. He’s always wanted to give back to society. If he’s elected, he’ll be tireless in his efforts to help build a better higher education system.

Michael Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada.